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by Elaine K Howley

January 6, 2021

Swimming is the ultimate cardiovascular workout

Any kind of cardiovascular exercise—the kind of activities that get your heart pumping and your sweat flowing—can help build your heart muscle and make you stronger. But swimming, in particular, is a really great way to exercise for heart health.

The heart is one piece of the complex and hard-working cardiovascular system, which also includes the vast network of veins, arteries, and other blood vessels that run throughout your body to bring oxygenated blood to every cell.

According to the Texas Heart Institute’s website, the system is so extensive that if you laid every vessel of the network end-to-end, the resulting vessel “rope” would extend some 60,000 miles and wrap around the earth more than twice.

That’s a lot of blood-pumping real estate crammed into your body, and thus, your heart must work hard all day long every day to keep blood, oxygen, nutrients, and wastes generated by cells moving along.

Exercise can help improve that process, and it seems swimming specifically might be one of the best forms of exercise to support your heart and circulatory system. 

Here are four major reasons why swimming is great for heart health.

Reduced Heart Rate

As part of a complex series of physiological responses to submersion in water cooler than your body temperature—a process called the mammalian diving reflex— your blood pressure automatically and near-instantly drops.

If you feel a sense of calm and a soothing of anxieties when you first enter the water, you’re not alone and it’s not all in your head. That’s the mammalian diving relax kicking in. It slows your pulse to help conserve oxygen in case you’ve fallen through the ice on a winter’s day and need to survive.

In addition to this in-the-moment effect that kicks in even in 82-degree pool water, swimming can result in a long-term, lowered heart rate through the effects of muscle building. Just like you build a bicep through repeated and gradual increases in weightlifting repetitions, engaging in cardiovascular exercise can increase the size and strength of your heart muscle.

Over time, this can cause your heart to become so strong that it doesn’t need to work as hard to meet the basic needs of running your cardiovascular system. Thus, it doesn’t need to beat as frequently, and that reduces stress on the heart over your lifetime.

Lowered Blood Pressure

Over the past few decades, Hirofumi Tanaka, a researcher at the University of Texas, has been studying the effects of swimming on human health. He’s found in several studies that there’s a direct correlation between how much adults swim and the health of their hearts.

Two studies in particular have shown impressive improvements in blood pressure among adults who took up swimming. A 2012 study of 43 older men and women (average age of 60) found that after they had started swimming a few times a week, their systolic blood pressure (that’s the top number) had declined.

Average systolic blood pressure was 131 millimeters of mercury at the beginning of the study. After 12 weeks, that average had dropped to 122. By comparison to the control group, which saw no change in blood pressure during the course of the study, that’s a significant drop courtesy of swimming.

A smaller 1997 study also showed that swimming lowers blood pressure.

Improved Circulation

It’s not just your heart that gets more efficient with exercise. That whole 60,000-mile-long network of vessels also gets more efficient, meaning your circulation improves.

Improved circulation means your blood is better able to reach all the corners of your body where it’s needed to deliver oxygen and remove waste. Having a healthy circulatory system means you’re at reduced risk of embolism, a blockage caused by a blood clot that typically forms in a vein in your leg and breaks loose and travels to your lungs, where it can become deadly. (There are other kinds of embolisms to worry about too if you have circulation problems, but pulmonary embolism is the most common.)

Improved circulation can also reduce your risk of stroke and other circulatory problems, and it can help your body move nutrients to cells that need repair.  The circulatory system is your body’s interstate highway system, and it needs to be in good repair in order to move all that traffic where it needs to go. Swimming can help plug some of the metaphorical potholes that can develop within the system as you age.

The water itself, not just the swimming, also plays a role in supporting circulatory health. The pressure from the water surrounding your skin also can help your body move blood around to where it’s needed. Particularly if you have edema or swelling in your  lower limbs or poor circulation in your feet and toes because of diabetes, consider adding swimming as a therapy to improve your body’s ability to move that excess fluid along and support improved blood flow to the extremities.

Stress Reduction

If you feel stressed, do you head to the pool? Well, you’re definitely not alone.

A 2012 survey of nearly 1,200 swimmers aged 16 to 45 around the world, conducted by swimwear manufacturer Speedo, put some numbers behind just how relaxing swimming can be—even when you’re engaging in tough workouts.

  • 74 percent of respondents said swimming helps release stress and tension.
  • 68 percent of respondents said being in the water helps them feel good about themselves.
  • 70 of respondents said swimming helps them feel mentally refreshed.

Swimming’s ability to help you manage stress is super important for supporting good heart health and preventing stress, a major risk factor for a heart attack.

Pick Swimming

Plus, when you’re submerged in water, you’re in a near-weightless environment that’s easy on your joints. Particularly for older adults who may have mobility or stability issues, swimming can be a great way to get moving in a gentle, yet effective, way. And moving against the water also creates a gentle resistance workout that can help build strength and endurance—all great benefits for longevity.

Any exercise is better than none when it comes to improving heart health, but swimming might just be the perfect way to improve your cardiac function and overall health and well-being.


  • Health and Nutrition